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Talking About Wealth

Judging from prime-time TV, wanting to be a millionaire seems a greater obsession than ever--just when $1,000,000 no longer qualifies one as wealthy. But wealth is not an unmixed blessing, especially among business-owning families. Business owners typically have as much as 75% of their net worth tied up in their businesses. As one business owner explained: "All wealth is paper--but some you can fold and put in your pocket and some you can't touch."

Not only is the business an illiquid asset, if it is healthy and growing, it demands additional investment and competes with the family for limited financial resources. Many family businesses explain: "We're business rich, but cash poor." Since the business is viewed as the family's "golden goose," however, it often is the family's financial priority. "Before we have the family rich," explained one business owner,"we want to have the company rich."

Building illiquid wealth in the business is favored for other reasons too. Some families fear business risk and are financially conservative to the point of overcapitalizing their business and accepting rates of return little higher than bond yields. Some families fear the impact of wealth on their spouses, children or grandchildren. Their concern is that family members will become "spoiled," focused on consumption rather than productivity and accomplishment, or oriented toward indolence rather than usefulness. When the founder of a family business found himself on a list of the wealthiest people in his large city, he denied the newspaper's figure. Privately, he admitted his wealth but complained: "Now that my wife knows how wealthy we are, what's to stop her from spending whatever she wants?" He had the money, but he didn't want a family life dominated by consumption. He prayed that his children would avoid the afflictions of "affluenza," and find fulfillment in using their intelligence and energy to overcome obstacles, to solve problems, to build and grow.

A hugely successful family business founder was approaching 80. Among Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans, he literally had everything that money could buy. But he kept working. "Business is just one problem after another," he was fond of saying, "but fortunately, I love problems." Life's meaning, he found, was not in wealth, but in developing solutions.

The problem with wealth is one of using it well in the service of the family's efforts to provide not just "the good life," but to help family members "live life well." The choices of what to do with wealth, while they appear nearly infinite, are limited to only three options: invest, provide security, or consume. Since you can't take it with you, wealth must be disposed of in some fashion. Again, the choices are limited: spend it, lose it, give it to family and friends, make charitable donations, or pay it as taxes.

For many business owning families, their businesses provide opportunities to invest in what they know well. Such families often have inadequately diversified investment portfolios, because investments in opportunities other than their own business seem riskier and unlikely to provide returns better than those available privately. Besides, if wealth is not tucked discretely in the family business, control will be reduced. Wealth will be frittered away--either through unwise investment or personal consumption.

Consumption often is viewed as the greatest danger. Lifestyles filled with leisure are feared for their potential for decadence and degradation. Many families simply refuse to acknowledge their wealth by not discussing it even within the family.

We believe that wealth should be discussed in family meetings. In "protecting" family members from wealth, parents fail to prepare their children to understand it, manage it, or use it effectively. In the long run, the risks of not discussing wealth are much greater than discussing it.

To be effective, however, the wealth discussion should be preceded by clarification of the family's mission, goals and values. Wealth and its uses can only be understood in the context of how it should be applied to life's goals. To keep wealth in perspective, it must be seen as a servant to important goals and values--and it can serve well only if family goals and values have been clarified, articulated and agreed upon.

When wealth is not used in service of the family's goals, it can become a harsh master, enslaving those who possess it. As a poet observed: "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers."

Family businesses provide the means for building wealth and putting it to work. Success brings its own problems, but those can be solved through the family's commitment to use wealth wisely--in business, investing, living and giving--by determining the family's goals and pursuing them in a disciplined, responsible way.

 

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